Saturday, December 06, 2014

Absurd Comedy with Delusions (at no extra charge)

by Blaise Cendrars

"Olympio is a large reddish, orang-outang. Whether he comes from Borneo or not, he's the most elegant creature aboard. It takes two Innovation trunks to hold his collection of suits and his under-finery. It is impossible to set foot on deck without immediately bumping into him." (p124)

Where do I begin? With the deranged doctor or the blue Indians? But how can I forget the orang-outang? We meet these characters in the second half of the book after reading about Moravagine escaping from a nightmarish boyhood and a strange castle in the earlier parts of the ersatz memoirs.

What we have with Moravagine (1926) by Blaise Cendrars is a novel that is difficult to summarize and, while written in the era of modern novels, seems almost post-modern in its organization. That is a structure I would compare with Nabokov's Pale Fire with its disparate sections of memoir, notes from the author, and other non-traditional bits of text, although the prose is nothing like Nabokov. Rather the prose is comparable to nightmarish narratives whether from Joris-Karl Huysmans or Franz Kafka.

The main narrative is in a picaresque style narrated by a young doctor who frees the mysterious Moravagine from an asylum where he’s been imprisoned for many years. “Moravagine” is an adopted name whose origin and meaning is never addressed, although a French reader would find a rather unavoidable pun on “death by vagina”. Moravagine himself is an otherwise unnamed member of the Hungarian royal family, a dwarfish intellectual psychopath with a bad leg who goes on the run with the doctor, first to pre-revolutionary Russia, then to the United States and South America.

The prose seems coherent only in the sense that your dreams (at least mine) seem rational until you realize that they are really absurd. The author may have been writing his narrative in reaction to his own experience of the senselessness of the Great War where he lost his right arm. He spent about a decade from 1917 to 1926 writing this novel and Cendrars himself appears as a character in the later chapters; he has his narrator lose a leg while Moravagine loses his reason altogether. At the end of the book he’s found imprisoned in another asylum where he believes he’s an inhabitant of the planet Mars, and where he spends his last months writing a huge, apocalyptic account of how the world will be in the year 2013.

This is a short novel that is in turns comedic and absurd, not necessarily all at the same time. If you enjoy experimentation in the books that you read you will like Cendrars memorable reflections on the meaninglessness of (fictional) existence.

Cover art is here

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Brian Joseph said...

I often like it when an author veers off the conventional track and tries to do something different and experimental. I am also drawn to the absurd. Of course the results vary but this sounds very good.

The cover of the edition that you posted is fantastic.

James said...


This novel is definitely "off the conventional track". He succeeds by keeping the episodes short and varying the nightmarish with the humorous.
The cover art is a detail from Death: I am the one who will make a serious woman of you; come, let us embrace (1896) by Odilon Redon.